Birmingham Royal Ballet Soloist, James Barton blogs about his time with BRB and working with Dame Gillian Lynne on ‘Miracle in the Gorbals’…
I started dancing at a very young age but never really specialised in one thing. I loved ballet, but also really enjoyed jazz, tap, acrobatics, drama and singing. It was for this reason that, at the age of eleven, I turned down a place at The Royal Ballet School, opting instead for Elmhurst School for Dance and Performing Arts, which at that time was situated in Camberley, Surrey. The school has since moved to Birmingham and is coincidentally in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet.
This meant that I could keep all my options open and still study all aspects of performing, instead of just ballet. I have never wanted to do just one thing, I loved so many aspects of the arts that it seemed a waste to limit myself to just one discipline. As I got older I still didn’t seem to have a clear direction, in fact rather ironically my dream was to be in the musical ‘Cats’ which was choreographed by Dame Gillian Lynne!
At the age of 16 I got the opportunity to come and work with Birmingham Royal Ballet when David Bintley was first creating Beauty and the Beast. I think as soon as I came here I knew it was the right place for me. I loved the people (still do!), I love the broad range of repertoire and I’m incredibly proud to be part of such a wonderfully talented (and slightly bonkers!) group of dancers.
Miracle in the Gorbals was originally created in 1944 by Sir Robert Helpman. The setting is the 1940s slums in the Gorbals area of Glasgow, which was renowned at the time for not only being immensely over populated but also an extremely dangerous place to live. The people who lived in the Gorbals had nothing and yet there was a real sense of community.
There are currently only four members of the original cast still alive today (none of whom, unsurprisingly, can remember a single step of the choreography!) so it has fallen to Dame Gillian Lynne to re-create the piece from scratch. She was there when Helpman first made the ballet and although it will not be the original choreography, the essence of what she is creating is very symbolic of the 1944 version.
We also have the original designs by Edward Burra and of course the beautiful score by Sir Arthur Bliss, which was commissioned especially for the ballet by Helpman.
Birmingham Royal Ballet currently has a lot of heritage works in our repertoire and it is incredibly important to keep those ballets alive. I have to confess that before I started this project I had never heard of Miracle in the Gorbals and I find it sad that had Birmingham Royal Ballet not decided to re-create the production, it would most likely be lost forever. We are all incredibly excited to be bringing this work to a completely new generation of ballet audiences and in doing so honouring the genius that was Robert Helpman.
Dame Gillian- or Gilly to her mates!- is a legend within the dance world and having spent the last four weeks with her it is easy to see why. She is renowned for being an incredibly hard task master. She expects you to always do everything ‘full out’. You repeat things over and over until you get it right and she will not settle for anything less than 100% commitment from each and every person in the room. In that respect she lives up to her reputation.
What I hadn’t anticipated is just what a warm and incredibly generous person she is. She expects as much of herself as everyone around her and wants you to have as much information and be as prepared for a performance as you possibly can. She has the most amazing sense of humour (I thought I was cheeky but I ain’t got nothing on her!) and without fail always brings her wit and warmth in to the studio each day. She doesn’t demand respect because she doesn’t need to; we all just have it for her.
She is unlike other choreographers in that she often asks for your opinion on things. She has asked me several times if she thinks my character would do a certain action or if I would behave in a certain way. I have never been in a rehearsal process which included this much repetition. We can learn a small section of movement or mime and then we are asked to repeat it over and over, often with a different idea in our heads or with a different intention. She also encourages us all to think like actors as opposed to dancers, which has given the ballet an entirely different feel.
We are all so excited for people to see this. We did our first full run in the studio the other day and although it may be difficult for me to have an unbiased opinion, I think it is an incredible piece of theatre. Firstly it is really quite moving- especially the final scene- but has just the right amount of humour. Dame Gilly has paced the ballet very well so you don’t get too overwhelmed with the drama, there are plenty of moments of light relief! For anyone who comes to see Birmingham Royal Ballet perform regularly it is a chance for them to see us do something completely different, not just in the style and context of the piece but also in our individual performances. It is like nothing we have ever done before.
I urge anyone who has an interest in theatre (not just ballet) to come along and see it. I feel very privileged to be part of something that is incredibly special and is also a little bit of history.
Miracle in the Gorbals forms one part of the triple bill, Shadows of War – for more info and to book click here.